The Three Vows

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Participants > Luke Wagner > The Three Vows

The Three Vows

by Luke Wagner

The influx of Indic materials and the establishment of different schools and lineages in Tibet during the Renaissance period inevitably led to tension between advocates of conflicting schools. One such point of tension is raised by Jackson in his study of the controversy surrounding the “white self-sufficient remedy” (dkar po chig thub), which can be seen as running parallel the doctrinal debates at Samyé (bsam yas) that date back to the eighth century (Jackon, 4). While the issue in such doctrinal controversies is the nature of the path to enlightenment, it reflects broader concerns regarding the efficacy and necessity of the three systems of discipline—the three codes or vows: prātimoksa; bodhisattva; and vidyādhara. According to some—Lhama Zhang and Ra-Lotsāwa, for example—the tantric (vidyādhara) vow supersedes all others and tantric masters should not be held accountable to lesser standards (Davidson, 329). Others, such as Sakya Pandita, maintained that the three vows coexisted and that the vidyādhara serves as the synthesis of the three (Gyaltshen, 23).

However, as Rhoton points out, the term “three vows” or the “three codes” (sdom pa gsum) did not always refer to these three categories. Instead, the term implied different things for various schools. For example, the Sautrāntika and Vaibhāsika schools used the term to refer to the vows of restraint of body, speech and mind. Similarly, the bodhisattva’s training in ethics had three components: restraint from misconduct; amassing virtue; and the promotion of the welfare of beings. Moreover, both the Hināyāna and Mahāyāna traditions employ Abhidharma texts that share three sets of vows: of individual liberation; of guarding against evil influences; and of concentrative absorption. In practice, these were meant to be incorporated with the three trainings: correct understanding (prajnā); meditative concentration (samādhi); and morality (śīla) (Gyaltshen, 24).


The prātimoksa is the section of the Vinaya that contains disciplinary regulations for the monastic community. The vow is regarded as the vow of individual liberation by Tibetan Buddhists as it is the vow of the Śrāvaka school. However it is considered the as part of the foundation of Buddhism and represents the first turning of the wheel of the dharma. The Tibetan lineage of the prātimoksa is derived from the Mūlasarvāstivada-vinaya, the origins of which can be traced back to the first or second century CE, and is longer than the Vinaya of other traditions (the Theravāda-vinaya and the Dharmaguptaka-vinaya).

The prātimoksa incorporates rules that cover all aspects of life—from what to wear to when to eat to rules of etiquette. There are eight precept categories ranging from vows that are taken and observed by lay householders for twenty-four hours to life-long vows taken by fully ordained monks and nuns. For the fully ordained monk, there are over 250 precepts that must be observed, and for the fully ordained nun there are over 350. There are five categories of precepts common to both fully ordained monks and nuns: 1) pārājika, the violation of which results in expulsion from the sangha. Killing a human being or engaging in sexual intercourse, for example; 2) sanghāvaśesa, which result in suspension from the sangha; 3) nihsargika-pātayantika, which result in forfeiture and includes keeping extra robes or engaging in business activities; 4) pātayantika, a downfall or a lapse such as lying or eating at a proscribed time; 5) śaiksā, which includes misdeeds such as wearing robes improperly. The prātimoksa also includes methods for resolving disputes or atoning for transgressions (Tsomo, 667-668)

The emphasis, however, is on the avoidance of negative behavior through prohibitions on physical behavior, and especially in not harming others. It acts as a foundation for the bodhisattva vows because negative behavior is the source of mental affliction, which prevents an individual from progressing in the path and attaining liberation for the sake of others. Thus, “(t)he prātimoksa vows are a way to defend ourselves from encountering the mental afflictions or their sources” (Thondup, viii).


The bodhisattva, or Mahāyāna, vow primarily emphasizes the cultivation and observation of boddhicitta, which is the mental resolve to take responsibility for bringing happiness and enlightenment to all sentient beings out of love and compassion rather than self-interest. In this sense it is referred to as the mind of enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhists take the vow of prātimoksa with the attitude of boddhicitta. That is, the vows are taken and observed for the sake of all sentient beings, not simply for the liberation of the individual. Thus, a practitioner not only refrains from harming others but also dedicates himself or herself to serving others (Thondup, viii-ix).

The vows of different traditions are structured differently, but there are general consistencies. There are three divisions: refraining from harmful actions; amassing virtuous deeds; and the service of others. “Amassing virtuous deeds” refers to training in the six perfections (generosity, moral discipline, patience, diligence, contemplation, and wisdom) while “the service of others” refers to the four practices of bringing others to the Dharma (generosity, pleasant speech, leading others to the Dharma, and remaining on the path oneself). In this way, the bodhisattva vow is more difficult to observe than that the prātimoksa because it requires continual maintenance of the proper mental attitude. Rather than simply avoiding defilements, it requires active engagement in their destruction. (Thondup, ix).


The vidyādhara is the Vajrayāna, or tantric, vow. The emphasis in this vow is the realization and perfection of the union of wisdom and skillful means. It requires receiving empowerment from a tantric master. Accordingly, one of the fundamental features of the tantric vows is the call to cultivate unquestioned devotion to a guru. Sparham explains that the purpose of this is not to seek enlightenment through the power inherent in any particular teacher or deity. Instead, it is necessary because of the vital role that the guru plays in esoteric practice. The guru not only imparts teachings on his students but also guides them through the difficult practices (Tsongkhapa, 7).

The basis for the argument that tantric vows encompass the prātimoksa and bodhisattva vows is that tantric vows are taken as part of an ordination ritual that includes a “preliminary ritual” in which first the prātimoksa and then the bodhisattva vows are taken.

As Sparham outlines, there are fourteen general tantric vows and, correspondingly, fourteen downfalls: 1) disparaging one’s gurus; 2) knowingly and willfully breaking a promise to keep any of the Prātimoksa, Mahāyāna, or tantric moralities; 3) hating someone consecrated and ordained by your guru; 4) abandoning love for sentient beings; 5) abandoning bodhicitta; 6) “deprecating from the bottom of your heart” one’s own doctrine or any other tenet system; 7) speaking publicly about secrets to immature beings; 8) treating the aggregates with contempt; 9) not making emptiness a central tenet of belief and understanding; 10) not resorting to violence when the situation requires it; 11) giving up a belief in emptiness after finding it; 12) “repulsing the minds of living beings who have faith”; 13) not resorting to pledges as they are found; and 14) despising women whose essence is wisdom. The first three vows represent seeking refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Following this, the fourth and fifth vows encapsulate Mahāyāna morality while the sixth implies that a fundamentalist restriction of the canon may be morally appropriate for Hīnayāna practitioner but is unacceptable for tantrists. Finally, the tenth and twelfth vows “make it abundantly clear” that the vows are for a spiritual elite. Sparham concludes, “supplicants in the tantric ordination ritual commit to keep not only the pledges of the five family buddhas and the fourteen general tantric vows, but also basic prātimoksa householder morality, and even the more basic ten wholesome action paths (Tsongkhapa, 10-13).

Because of the dangerous nature of tantric practice, it is widely understood that this makes the maintenance of vows even more critical. As Tulku Thondup explains, “Breaking tantric samaya is more harmful than breaking other vows. It is like falling from an airplane compared to falling from a horse” (Thondup, x). However, it is not always clear when vows are maintained and when they are broken. It is agreed that tantric masters are capable of outwardly acting in ways that appear to be a violation of their vows when, in fact, they are not. Again, Tulku Thondup points out an example: “Highly accomplished tantrics, through their power of realization, can maintain the vow of celibacy even if they have consorts, but such claims of attainment are authentic only if they are also able to bring the dead back to life” (Thondup, xi). However, it seems clear that there was significant sentiment that many people were falsely claiming tantric powers during the Renaissance period. Their actions served, in part, as stimulus for Sakya Pandita's composition of A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes in the mid-thirteenth century.


Davidson, Ronald M. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gyalpo, Pema Wangyi, Ngari Panchen. 1996. Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows. Commentary by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdral Yeshe Dorje. Translated by Khenpo Gyurme Samdrub and Sangye Khandro. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Gyaltshen, Sakya Pandita Kunga. 2002. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions Among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Translated by Jared Douglas Rhoton, edited by Victoria R. M. Scott. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jackson, David. 1994. Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the “Self-Sufficient White Remedy (dkar po chig thub). Wien : Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Thondup, Tulku. 1996. “Preface” in Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows. Commentary by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdral Yeshe Dorje. Translated by Khenpo Gyurme Samdrub and Sangye Khandro. Boston: Wisdom Publications.